“Don’t you find him absurd? Why has he come here? He must be up to something.” Ali was continuously firing from his tongue as Nazma continued to fry the keema on the stove. She didn’t pay any attention to Ali as she was used to these murmurs whenever he entered the kitchen after coming home. Ali placed his white crochet cap on the table in his room and came back once again in the kitchen. He glanced at the karahi, the intense aroma of spices smothered him for a moment but suddenly he felt the flow of juices in his mouth.
Nazma looked up at him and tried to pacify him, “ Why don’t you wash your hands and come to the table? How are we concerned about him?”
“ It is because of the attitude of persons like you that we continue to suffer.”
Nazma didn’t answer this. She knew Ali was tired after a day’s long work at his shop. Long hours at repairing old watches was taking a toll on Ali’s eyes. He used to come back home with an empty stomach and a mind full of angry thoughts. For the last few days, Ali’s thoughts were focussed on their new neighbour, a Sikh who had come from Pakistan and was staying with Bakshish Singh.
“Qadian is not a place where anyone will come for a living.” Ali was still thinking loud while wiping his hands off the towel. He pulled a chair and sat beside her on the table. For the next few minutes, only the spoons were chitter chattering. She watched Ali engrossed in his thoughts as he finished his keema plate.
“Who wears a saffron and green Patka?it is very unusual.” Ali kept his empty plate in the kitchen sink. Nazma had a fixed smile on her face. Within a few minutes, as his food would get absorbed in the bloodstream, his thoughts would quieten, she knew.
An hour later, she was looking lovingly at her husband snoring peacefully in the sleep.
Sahib Singh opened the gate of the house and entered in the verandah. He looked at the Muslim man, same height as his, who was also entering the adjacent house. As his gaze met him, he found a pair of prying eyes and turned away immediately. The door was locked. Bakshish Singh had not reached yet. He had told him where to find the keys if he got late from the taxi stand. Sahib took out the keys from under the pot and entered the house. His maternal cousin Bakshish could boast of only few possessions. His job as a taxi driver used to keep him away from home for many days. His minimalistic approach was apparent from the furniture in the room. It had only one weaved rope cot, a colour television, a very old model refrigerator, 2 chairs, one table and a steel almirah. The nylon belt folding cot, bought for Sahib Singh only a few days ago, rested against the almirah. As Sahib laid down his bed, he was transported to Peshawar in his memories.
The room in Peshawar had a very similar look. At the time of partition, Sahib’s family had chosen to stay back. They had an ancestral house and a well settled tailoring shop in Kochi bazaar. The lines by Sir Radcliffe on a map could bring a little change in their lives, they thought so. His father could not imagine life beyond Kabul and Swat rivers. They had been attached to Hindu Kush for generations and a declaration of partition on the religious grounds could not force them away from the magnetic field of the valley. But Bakshish’s father in Lahore had thought otherwise. Living for ages in the secured walled city, his family had suddenly started feeling heat in the emotional waves of partition. A caravan of 11 members of the family had set out for East Punjab on that fateful night of August 1947, of which only three could make it to Qadian town in district Gurdaspur. The rest could reach the list of missing persons only. After reaching here, Bakshish , his father and grandfather had found the open flowing Raavi and Beas rivers surrounding Gurdaspur provided more protection than the impregnable walls of Lahore.
The flashback of memories and stories enveloped Sahib into deep sleep.
“The army has forgotten the humane approach. How can anyone order to tie a person to the jeep and parade through villages? They have totally lost it.” Ali entered home in a furious mood as always. He looked too exhausted today. Nazma left the stitching work in between and went into the kitchen on hearing his voice.
He looked outside the window and saw the silhouette of Sahib Singh strolling in the verandah of the neighbouring house.
“Our Government can welcome these Pakistani refugees here, but won’t tolerate its own Muslims in Kashmir?” Ali banged the window late enough to get his complete sentence land into the ears of Sahib Singh.
As he turned around, Nazma was standing behind him with a steel glass of water.
“Why do you bother so much about others? What harm have they done to you? Cool down and wash your hands. I have made Arbi gosht for you.”
Ali looked at her large dreamy eyes beautifully circled by kajal. The stone in her silver nose pin sparkled brightly as the light scattered on it with her movements.
“You don’t understand”,said Ali in a mellowed down tone, sitting on the chair as Nazma filled his plate with a generous serving of Arbi Gosht.
“This is a matter of our Kaum, our religion,” he continued as he tasted the curry.
“I know of only one religion, a religion of humanity. Everything else comes later.”
“Where is this humanity when our brothers in Kashmir are tortured by the army? I asked my Muslim brethren the same question today. I even posed the same question to the media persons gathered outside the mosque.”
“Media persons? Why did they come to a mosque? Why did you try to become a leader?” Nazma sounded worried. Ali was getting increasingly sentimental about religious issues for the last few months.
“They had come from Delhi. They wanted to gather the reaction of Muslims from here about the situation in Kashmir.” Ali was relishing his talk and food alike. “These Sikhs and Hindus had bothered us too much in 1947 and are trying to recreate it in Kashmir now.”
“Everyone had to endure partition. No one was spared. We had so many refugees here in Punjab who were uprooted from their settled lives in Pakistan.” Nazma tried to reason and pacify.
“They had to. Once the countries were divided on the religion, they were rightfully thrown out of Pakistan.” Ali countered with a sarcastic tone.
Though he had temper issues but Nazma had never noticed Ali getting so fanatic about the issue before. Was getting carried away by some miscreants? She had to stop him.
Standing behind, she put her arms around him seductively and replied teasingly, “If that was the case Miya ji, why did you stay back? Why didn’t you move to….”
A sudden loud thump on the table interrupted Nazma as Ali got up from the seat, staring angrily at Nazma. He washed his hands and walked into his room, banging the door behind him. She stood there frozen for a few seconds. Gathering herself a little while later, she picked up his half finished plate, still disoriented.
Sahib Singh was strolling in the verandah when he heard a loud abuse from the neighbouring window, which was then slammed shut. He ignored the verbal flutter and kept enjoying the full moonlight. The moon didn’t shine any less here than in Peshawar. His stream of thoughts were interrupted by Bakshish Singh opening the gate. He had come home early today. After an exchange of pleasantries, both of them moved inside.
“Today I had talked to my Taxi stand owner about you. He has got many connections in the transport business. He will get you employed somewhere. Wahe Guruji di Mehar, you are done with the immigration process.” Bakshish said while kneading the flour.
Sahib too thanked the Almighty raising his hands up in the air and resumed chopping the onions.
“It must have been very hard and emotional trauma for you to make this decision.” Bakshish was now putting oil in the frying pan.
“I’m not a refugee. I am an immigrant.” Sahib commented, not sure if Bakshish could absorb the difference in the feelings. He continued,” I have made this decision as a choice and am grateful that India has adopted me. The love for my motherland Pakistan will not affect my loyalty to India,” putting the chopped onions in the pan for tempering with other spices and adjusted his green and saffron turban.
“You were lucky to get a choice. We were forced out of our homes overnight. You know how we had lost everyone. The lines of partition were not drawn on any map, they were etched in our hearts.”
“Things were no better back in Pakistan. Peshawar had always had a fair share of troubles with drug dealers, smugglers, tribals. We survived even the nefarious designs of the deadly games of Russia and the CIA. The apathy of the government agencies could not dilute the love for our motherland. But the insurgence of Taliban finally forced me to shut down my tailoring shop. Hindus and Sikhs were targeted for extortion, and we were forced to pay jizya tax. I came to Lahore and started working in the Azam cloth market.” Sahib was driven in the old memory lanes with moist eyes.
“It seems you were a refugee in your own country till now.” Bakshish had started serving the sabzi in plates.
“No doubt about that. We were not acknowledged even in Lahore. Do you know our Model Town Gurdwara gates are still closed after more than 50 years? It is an irony that I fought all oppressive forces since 1947 but finally gave in to our own Government’s might.” Sahib nibbled at green chilli.
The cousins kept on recounting their horrors till the darkest shade of the sky. Past midnight, the room started resonating with Bakshish’s snores past midnight as nebulous dreams enveloped Sahib’s eyes.
“Ya Allah!” Nazma screamed as she watched Ali shouting vehemently on the television screen. The media was focussing on the views of muslims in the neighbouring states on the happenings of Kashmir.The revengeful tone of Ali made her shudder in fear. Ali came running out of the bathroom, hearing her shrieks. His portrayal on the screen with a fiery use of words looked really intimidating. He tried to look at Nazma apologetically.
The shouts in the street broke the telepathic connection between their eyes. It took them no time to understand that the approaching voices reverberated his name. A horde of Hindus and Sikhs were gathering outside his house. The programme was probably being aired for a long time.
Ali was trembling as she opened the rear gate and forced him to run away. The mob got a whiff of his escape and dispersed in all directions to chase him. He kept running bare feet on the streets leading to the canal. He had never imagined his ordinary reaction would flare up the sentiments of all the residents. However fast he ran, the distance between the cacophony of the crowd and his ears appeared to get closer. For a moment he recollected the horrific tales of the refugees of the town, he had heard many times in childhood. The crowd was chasing him with sticks and swords. It seemed whole village had ganged up against him.
The brain was working faster than his legs. Where were his fellow Muslims? How long could he run like that? What would happen if he got caught? He turned around to see that the rabble of angry men was now at a stone’s throw distance. There was no way he could escape the fury of the mob. The canal was across the road. He was panting badly and leg muscles seemed to have exhausted all the adrenaline rush. He had seen dead bodies retrieved from the canal many a time. The beautiful face of Nazma admonishing him appeared before his eyes. His knees touched the ground as a measure of the final surrender as he looked at the crowd charging at him. The crowd was seemingly in no mood to relent.
Suddenly a speeding auto- rickshaw appeared from nowhere on the road separating him and the canal. The driver thrust the almost lifeless body inside and sped away from the violent gathering. The frontrunners who reached the spot few seconds later could only get the exhaust fumes of the auto rickshaw.
As Ali gathered himself up after a few minutes inside the speeding rickshaw, he tried to recognise his saviour from behind. The well-built man was speeding the auto on the narrow road and the loose end of his saffron green patka was fluttering furiously in the wind.